Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers!) + Update

Update: In the last 24 hours quite a few people have asked me if I wrote this spoiler-free review because of Disney/Marvel’s Thanos Demands Your Silence campaign. I would like to be very clear that my allegiance is NOT to any corporate behemoth, but to the many fans and friends who want to see this for themselves and make up their own minds. I plan to revisit the film at some point (before Avengers 4 comes out) and discuss it in full – spoilers and all 🙂

I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I did ❤

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo.

Today I went to the opening screening at (oddly) my local art house cinema, The State in Hobart. I say oddly, because this isn’t high art, it couldn’t be considered quirky and it certainly isn’t an independent production.

This is the 19th movie in the MCU – a decade of blockbuster comic book cinema, which has changed how we think of big, loud action films and helped bring strong threads of fantasy and science fiction narrative into mainstream movie-making.

Essentially, Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all those films, where incredibly well-paid (arguably overpaid) actors get to dance around in front of green screens, dangle off wires and sometimes wear motion capture (or mocap) suits, all the while acting their hearts out. In many ways, the MCU can be seen as everything that’s wrong with homogenised, formula-driven mainstream cinema – but I cannot begin to express how much I enjoyed this film.

Yes, there are faults. I think stylistically, the Russo brothers played it very safe, employing design and style elements from previous films which stand out against original scenes such as those on Thanos’ home planet Titan, which become almost too generic and to my eyes, bland. There was a moment early in the film where the CG really stood out – and not in a good way! – but fortunately, this was the only point where I felt the strain of all those pixels trying to be “real”. Also, unlike nearly all previous films in the MCU, this is not a stand-alone product and requires at least some background knowledge. The other is Captain America: Civil War (2016), which acts in many ways as a set up for this film.

Looking at it as a classic three act structure, we leave this story about halfway through the second act, and things are looking very bleak. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t miffed that I have to wait another year for the conclusion, reminiscent of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010). But unlike the Potter experience, where nearly everyone I know had read the books and we knew what was going to happen, in the MCU not everything plays out like the comic book versions.

Thanos is a particularly complicated and multilayered villain, far more I think than in the comics. The rationale behind Thanos’ desire to reduce populations is psychopathic and extreme to say the least but he truly believes it – and despite the character being a CG/mocap mash-up, Josh Brolin makes us believe his sincerity too. And Brolin’s scenes with Zoe Saldana’s Gamora had me immediately thinking there’s going to be a lot to talk about in feminist film circles regarding Thanos’ “love” for his adopted daughter.

Perhaps the biggest plus is the slick pacing, which the Russo’s and their editing team did incredibly well. At almost two and a half hours, there’s barely time to breathe, let alone gasp, wince or laugh – and there are quite a few laugh out loud moments – but I was left wanting more. It’s like being on a roller-coaster joyride with heroic deeds, death and destruction all around. (So my pro tip is prepare with a toilet stop BEFORE the film starts!)

So why did I love this so much? Because at its heart, this is the culmination of really good long-form storytelling. While some characters don’t speak to me as much or as well as others, I’ve found myself over the last ten years completely invested in some stories and now, caring about their outcomes and departures. I’m really glad that Marvel have gone down the route of killing my darlings, raising the stakes makes their actions and how they say goodbye all the more important to us as fans. (Oh, that DC could understand this!)

I must also note there’s no mid-credit sequence after the film to set up part two (currently listed simply as Avengers 4), due for release in May next year. Having had a few hours to think about it, I think it’s because the whole film is the set up for the next movie. But I do encourage everyone to stay to the very end for a particularly pertinent sequence that leads down yet another narrative rabbit hole.

Roll on 2019!

 

Black Panther

Black Panther (2018). Directed by Ryan Coogler.

I’ve had a very mixed weekend. I was considering going to the movies yesterday but my painful back, hip and knees would’ve made sitting still uncomfortable. My body is telling me the seasons are starting to change, and that really is depressing – I haven’t finished my love affair with this summer yet. But with some careful management (stretching, hot packs and yoga), I managed to get some quality gardening time in, and planted a heap of vegetable seedlings. Also yesterday, there was a state election here in Tasmania, and from my point of view (and anyone working in the arts sector) the results were less than encouraging.

So, I was in the perfect mood for some blockbuster action to take my mind off things, and (with a makeshift back bolster) went to the local Village Cinema to see the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Black Panther didn’t disappoint! It has an excellent premise, a top-notch cast and some fine action moments. The film begins with a really beautiful animation that backgrounds the history of Wakanda, the fictional African nation that is the only place on earth to find the equally fictional vibranium (the metal used to construct Captain America’s shield) and this gives new viewers enough backstory to get them through the film. The story picks up from the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016) where Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home after the death of his father to become king of Wakanda.

Ulysses Klaue (played with manic relish by Andy Serkis) makes a return, as does CIA agent Emmett Ross (Martin Freeman) – but the rest of the main cast are black and many of the strongest characters are female. It’s also pertinent to point out that all the female characters are appropriately dressed for their roles, don’t try and fight in high heels, don’t require saving and have some of the best dialogue. In fact, at one point a character does complain about having to wear a wig to a casino, which (for me) really drives the point home.

The action scenes are for the most part, the high quality I expect from the MCU, but there’s a couple of ropey moments that don’t quite work. A car chase in Seoul (part of which features in the trailer) is a real standout and will certainly bear repeat viewing when the DVD comes out. Narratively, it’s a little baggy and threatened to get bogged down in the second act but the final act is very good and (unlike so many films in this genre) I don’t think the last big fight scene outstays its welcome. I’ll be seeking out other films by Ryan Coogler now for sure!

For me, three things really made this film work. Firstly, at one point I genuinely forgot I was watching a Marvel film, I was fully invested in the characters and story in the moment, without all the add-on Marvel baggage. Secondly, the two young boys in the row behind, their gasps and obvious delight reminded me how important pure action entertainment is.

But above all, I really liked that this film raised questions of how to deal with refugees, sharing knowledge, resources and how (for a film that’s based on a comic book), they strove to resolve those questions. It brought to mind the often quoted phrase “when you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence”.

Long live the king!

Thor: Ragnarok – Day 6 NaBloPoMo 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Directed by Taika Waititi

I went to see this last week, trying not to have too many preconceptions, but I’d seen the trailers and posters (anyone with an internet connection and a social media account couldn’t have missed them could they?) and I started reading Marvel Comics as a small child, the much lauded “Silver Age”, so I had some context to draw from and the poster I’ve included above particularly reminded me of the Jack Kirby comic books I read as a kid.

Despite their problems with gender representation, I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and love the Thor franchise – not for the titular character, but for Tom Hiddleston’s version of Loki. Even in the comics way back in the day, Thor was something of a vanilla hero – but Loki was far more entertaining and often provided the comedy that’s been lacking on screen. I’m also a big fan of Taika Waititi’s work as an actor, writer and director, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is one of my favourite indie comedies. So it was difficult to go into this without some expectations.

I really needn’t have worried. I thought the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a fabulous and very well timed break in the seriousness of the MCU – but Thor: Ragnarok is a veritable breath of fresh air. I still have some issues but they are minor compared with many of the previous films in this franchise. (I’m happy to discuss in the comments if anyone’s interested).

This time the usual cast from Asgard are joined by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Goddess of Death, Karl Urban as Skurge, Tessa Thompson as Val/Valkyrie, Taika Waititi as Korg and Jeff Goldblum as the wonderfully campy Grandmaster. I really loved Blanchett’s villainous Hela, and Tessa Thompson was great as the alcoholic Valkyrie who gets to redeem herself. The sets for the Grandmaster’s planet Sakaar are just wonderful, evoking Kirby’s artwork and the soundtrack (featuring Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”) works really well.

A friend described this film as a romp, and I think that’s a great word. This movie is irreverent, loud, brash and very, very funny.

Go see it and let me know what you think 🙂

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Columbia Pictures/Marvel Studios. Directed by Jon Watts.

It’s Saturday night and I’ve just got home from the movies. I wanted to see Edgar Wright’s latest release, Baby Driver and probably should’ve seen Wonder Woman (yes I know, it’s shameful I haven’t seen it yet!) but I’m really pleased I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming!

From the opening credits that riffed the Avengers theme music around the old Spiderman TV series theme, this was fun! Tom Holland is really excellent as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and at 21 can just about pass for a geeky, awkward 15 year old high school student who’s discovered he has superpowers. And I think that’s what I really found charming about this film, it was as much a coming of age story as a superhero film. The scenes that involved the young cast were really well done, and although not aimed at a middle aged audiences like me, I really found myself caring about those kids. My standouts were Ned, beautifully played by Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend and Zendaya (playing against type) as the mouthy and happily dysfunctional Michelle.

Among the grown ups present, Michael Keaton made a wonderful villain as Adrian Toomes/Vulture, Marisa Tomei was sympathetic and lovely as Aunt May and of course, Robert Downey Jr. ate up every scene he was in. I was really pleased to see Jon Favreau reprising his role as Happy Hogan too.

A lot has been said about the necessity for yet another reworking of this franchise for the big screen, but I think the Marvel makeover was warranted and definitely a success. I do think it owes a great deal to the Sam Rami 2002 Spider-Man – especially the school scenes. I still think Rami’s take on the material was excellent for two of his three films and today, somewhat underrated. But this is Marvel, so the set pieces are well choreographed, intense and the CG is for the most part very well done. Unlike some of their more recent efforts, the final battle didn’t overstay its welcome and like most of the MCU features, this film made great use of music. The scene with Spidey swinging around New York to The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Pop” was fabulous.

Perhaps above all, this movie made me laugh out loud more than once, and I left the cinema with a smile on my face – a fun popcorn movie 😀

 

Book Time – Day 23 NaBloPoMo 2016

After our short blast of summer, today was wet and surprisingly cool. So I went into the city and cleared my holds and lay-by at Cracked & Spineless New & Used Books. And I’ve spent the rest of the day reading and trying not to drool over my bounty!

As I’m sure many of you know, I’m a huge fan and student of cinema. I love the history and culture that surrounds and informs it, particularly the pop culture source material that cinema draws from. As a child of the 60’s, I grew up watching Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, so when Richard showed me this secondhand treasure today I really had to get it!

 

img_20161123_110141

Sir Christopher Frayling is an academic and educator, and has written widely about pop culture. His style is scholarly but very accessible, something that’s often lacking in these kind of titles. But it’s obvious the man loves his work. I think I first came across him back in the late 90’s with a wonderful documentary and book Nightmare: The Birth of Horror. 

Speaking of which, I also picked up today the revised edition of The Hammer Vault by Marcus Hearn.

img_20161123_144513

This is a stunning collection of (often rare) artifacts from Hammer films, such as annotated script pages, unused promotional artwork, rare still shots and even private correspondence. The revised edition includes recent productions, including The Woman in Black (2012) which is a really lovely, old school Gothic horror film that is worth watching if only for a really fine post-Harry Potter performance from Daniel Radcliffe.

And finally, there was this beastie!

img_20161123_144401

This book goes right back to the very beginnings of Marvel and it’s really fascinating to see how some of the enduring characters have changed over time. Equally, it’s fascinating to note how many of the essential traits of characters such as Luke Cage, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have made their way across to the movies.

Recently, I went to see Doctor Strange (2016) and was thrilled that the production designers took note (and really paid homage to) the psychedelic and surreal artwork of Steve Ditko.

I think this book is a gem for anyone who loves pop culture history and comic books. Also, it really underlines how much the comics have informed the production values in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Tomorrow I’ve got a busy day. A load of sheep manure is turning up for the garden and I’m meeting a friend who’s writing an article about my work at Oak Tasmania, so I’m off for an early night of more reading 😀